(This blog is accompanied by a video at https://youtu.be/E7bgzLLcKto.)
Following on from last week’s piece about shalom, the focus this week is on three examples of contemporary seekers of shalom. But first we go back to the time of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem and to something he said in a letter to friends about seventeen hundred miles away in another city.
By the rivers of Babylon
In his letter, Jeremiah urged his friends to “seek the shalom of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). However, this city wasn’t Jerusalem (whose name means ‘city of peace’) but Babylon!
Babylon! Jeremiah, you have got to be joking! We just want to get away from this awful place of captivity. We want to be back in Jerusalem, back home in Zion.
Alongside Babylon’s rivers
we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
remembering the good old days in Zion.
Alongside the quaking aspens
we stacked our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
sarcastic and mocking:
“Sing us a happy Zion song!”
Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
in this wasteland?
(Psalm 137:1-4, The Message. Some of you may be hearing in your inner ear Boney M’s seventies hit ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.)
Jeremiah, you can’t be serious! This city is the largest in the world just now and the Hanging Gardens are truly a wonder but who are we among so many who do not worship the Lord? And if we call for justice and shalom and plead on behalf of the poor and marginalised, we are likely under this autocratic rule to be thrown into a den of hungry lions or burnt to a frazzle in a fiery furnace!
You still say we are to seek the shalom of Babylon? Why? Because, you say, it is the Lord who has put us here, it is the Lord who has carried us into exile.
Okay, Jeremiah, if you put it like that, we will sing the Lord’s song in this wasteland, poor and few though we may be. We will seek shalom in all our relationships.
And they did … and the book of Daniel tells us more about some of them.
Two shalom-seekers you may have heard about
I turn now to three contemporary seekers of shalom, two of whom I interviewed for recent blogs.
The work of Joe and Sharon Donnelly and their team in the Anchorage Project in Dublin’s docklands was featured in ‘Meet Joe Donnelly: Champion of Hope’. Their renovation of an old mission hall by the River Liffey to create the Fair-Play Café and its beautiful and restful garden was surely seeking shalom in a wasteland.
Joe says that when the Lord led them to that place, the mission hall that he had vandalised as a teenager and the space behind in which he and his friends had cider parties, “I was appalled at the thought that the Lord would want me to take on the old mission hall … I just felt that it was the last place on the planet I would go to”.
Surely not here in Babylon, the exiles must have said. Surely not here in Ringsend, Joe said.
Part of the meaning of shalom is community and community has been from the start one of the four core values of Joe’s project. Perhaps at no time has that value been to the fore as clearly as in these days of pandemic. The team with volunteer help are “cooking for the cocooned in the community” as they have expanded their long-standing ‘Share your Lunch’ initiative by preparing and distributing lunch packs to 150 homes of people who are shut in because of the coronavirus.
Charles Strohmer is another contemporary seeker of shalom. His work was featured in ‘Meet Charles Strohmer: Champion of Wisdom’.
As a young man, Charles was an astrologer who consulted the spirit guides and sought to help people to tell the future by reading the horoscopes he prepared for them. He is now a sage who seeks the guidance of the Holy Spirit as he researches the norms of biblical wisdom and shares them with people who are active in efforts to promote international peace and justice.
Charles is a true shalom-seeker among shalom-seekers and their work is for shalom not just in a single city but in the wide spaces of diplomacy and international relations.
In this time of pandemic, Charles says, “whether we are talking about cities or counties or countries, the wisdom tradition can help politicians, medical people, and other kinds of COVID-19 decision makers to be more on the same page helping us ordinary citizens to get through this difficult season with less divisiveness, in order to work together for the good of our countries”.
Teaching Mathematics for Shalom!
Turning from the two very different contexts of a Dublin docklands community and international diplomacy, we come to that of a college mathematics classroom. There we find Francis Su, the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California who was the first person of colour to be president of the Mathematical Association of America.
Francis is a keen Christian and a hymn-writer. His section of the college website contains an Advent hymn of his entitled ‘Light of Life’.
‘Mathematics for Human Flourishing’ is the title of both his book published last January and a speech he gave in 2017 at the end of his term as MAA president that gave birth to the book. James Tanton of the Global Math Project says, “This is perhaps the most important mathematics book of our time. Francis Su shows mathematics is an experience of the mind and, most important, of the heart.”
Francis Su’s book is aimed at a wide readership and especially at those who have had a bruising experience of mathematics. His central concern is to show that mathematics is intimately tied to being human because it meets basic human desires and cultivates virtues which are essential if we are to flourish together in shalom. He writes, “To say shalom to someone is to wish that they will flourish and live well” (p. 10).
Each chapter deals with a different desire – exploration, meaning, play, beauty, permanence, truth, struggle, power, justice, freedom, community and love – as well as with the virtues it calls forth. For example, the desire to explore encourages the virtues of imagination, creativity and an expectation of enchantment; the desire for meaning encourages story building, thinking abstractly, persistence and contemplation; and the desire for community encourages hospitality, attention to people and vulnerability.
The last chapter is about love of which Francis writes:
“love is the source of and end of all virtue, for it sits at the heart of every virtue—even the ones that mathematics builds. To love through and because of mathematics is to build hopefulness, to cultivate creativity, to promote reflection, to foster a thirst for deep knowledge and deep investigation, to encourage in ourselves and one another a disposition toward beauty and all the other virtues we’ve discussed.” (p. 206)
He goes on to say that this love has to be unconditional love because “only this kind of love has the promise of changing the practice of mathematics from a self-indulgent pursuit to a force for human flourishing. … Unconditional love reminds us that to love someone is to really know them, to get to know not just their mathematical selves but their whole person.”
As one who had a wonderful nineteen years as a teacher of mathematics, I readily identify with the ideals that Francis Su writes about and only lament the degree to which I so often fell short and failed to display or encourage these virtues.
Your context may not be that of a docklands community, international diplomacy or classroom teaching but, whatever it is, it is where the Lord has put you and in which he urges you to seek shalom in all your relationships.
Let us pray.
Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord. Help us to live and labour for a shalom-ful world here and now which we believe will be fully restored there and then. In the name of the One who lived, died and rose again to make it all possible, Amen.
(This blog is accompanied by a video at https://youtu.be/E7bgzLLcKto.)
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